The Means Report spends this episode covering the hot topics of Augusta, Georgia. So much is happening in the city with a look at cyber growth, the development of our downtown area, and just really the crystal ball. What might the future hold for Augusta? It seems that future is limitless. And who better to do that with than the mayor of Augusta, Georgia now well into his second term, Hardie Davis, Jr. Mayor Davis?
Brad Means: Thank you so much for pausing from that busy schedule, that busy agenda and joining us.
Mayor Hardie Davis: Great to be here, Brad. I’m excited to talk about the topics that are important to everybody in Augusta, and I’m even more excited just to come and reconnect with you. It’s been a long time.
Brad Means: It has, it’s been way too long. How did you get to the television station today? What kind of vehicle?
Mayor Hardie Davis: Well, I can tell you that it was a black vehicle. It was my personal Ford F-150.
Brad Means: It was a pickup truck.
Mayor Hardie Davis: It was a pickup truck. I’m a truck kind of guy, and for those Georgia Bulldogs that are out there, it has a big GT sticker on the front of it. When I pull up behind the Bulldogs, know that there’s a Yellow Jacket behind you.
Brad Means: Alright, well, so no SUV yet. I guess that’s forthcoming. My point is, what’d you think of that whole thing? It seems like it could have been easier.
Mayor Hardie Davis: Well, it could have been easier. I want to thank the commissioners who, one, supported it. I think that it’s been a long time coming in terms of discussing that matter. It’s something that happens in cities all across America, certainly here in the state of Georgia, took too much television time and paper time in my mind, but again, I’m appreciative that we finally made the decision to move forward with the fleet vehicle, and hopefully here, in the next several days, weeks, the vehicle will show up and then we’ll have access to drive it and continue to do the business of the people.
Brad Means: I think it’s important to note that you didn’t want decals on it for a very serious reason. It wasn’t just that you didn’t want a random sticker on your SUV. There’s a real threat sometimes to you.
Mayor Hardie Davis: Well, there is. I think that as I shared on that Tuesday, in the mayor’s office, we’ve had a number of threats in the short period of time that we’ve been here. It’s common across America for elected officials in this world that we live in today that’s so polarizing where elected officials, partisan politics has taken a foothold in that quite frankly has caused communities that once worked very well together to be at odds with one another. So I don’t want to do anything to put myself in harm’s way, and certainly anyone who would be in the vehicle with me to be put in harm’s way as well. I think it’s important for us to understand that this is no different than any other city of our size who makes available to their chief executive officer, the person that people view as leader of the city, a vehicle to continue to do the business of the people. And so, I think that the right decision was made on this past Tuesday regarding the decal. It was already language that was adopted in current city law that it was not required, and so, we moved on beyond that and now we just await the vehicle to show up.
Brad Means: Pull back the curtain a little bit. When you have someone who we see in the news saying, like Commissioner Mary Williams did, you need to have the stickers on your car, you’ll have people on social media saying, you need a smaller, less expensive vehicle, how’s that make you feel? Do you ever go behind the scenes, stuff we don’t see, and say, “Commissioner, please don’t do this to me”?
Mayor Hardie Davis: Well, we had those conversations. The reality of it is, that was a discussion that took place before we even got to the point of discussing it on the floor. I met with a number of commissioners. This has been an ongoing discussion since day one that I’ve been in the mayor’s office. I think that on the other side of December 31, 2022, we’ll look back on this time, and whether people agree with the approach that I took or not, future mayors will look back and say, “Mayor Davis took the lumps that we have to take.” And I think that’s certainly something that gives you a great deal of comfort. We’ve taken on issues and will continue to do so through the remainder of our time in office, while other mayors won’t have to do the heavy lifting because this will be a part of how government should operate, how government could operate in terms of one, the role of the mayor but also how that office engages in meeting the needs of our constituency, being an advocate, an ambassador for a city that’s, as I’ve oftentimes said, we’re not Mayberry, we’re the second largest city in the state of Georgia. We have national emphasis now because of what’s happening around the issues of cyber, cyber security and what will be done from an institution of higher learning with Augusta University, but we’re more than that. And so, all eyes are on our city for a host of reasons. And I think it’s important to allow those individuals who represent and act as ambassadors for our city to reflect what that looks like.
Brad Means: So now, it’s back to the business at hand, this issue hopefully behind us all. And you focus on the key topics of Augusta, Georgia. First and foremost, our Savannah River and what the core of engineers may do with the Lock and Dam. Big meeting coming up today, Thursday, while we’re taping this, it airs later. But my question is can you really go to the core and say, “Here’s what you should do,” and they say, “Oh good idea, okay we will.” Or is it inevitable?
Mayor Hardie Davis: Well, I wouldn’t suggest that it’s inevitable. I think that’s the reality behind why we’re, one, having the discussion tonight to give our citizens and those of North Augusta, quite frankly, everyone who’s in the CSRA, who enjoys the benefit of a very healthy, a viable river, whether it’s for recreational purposes, whether it’s for the health and safety of our citizens by providing waters, drinking water. When you look at what takes place on our river, obviously recreation is a very key component to that, but our drinking water comes from the river as well. And that’s not just Augusta, but North Augusta residents as well, Aiken County residents get the benefit of that. Our manufacturing relies heavily, our intake systems require us to have water at a certain pool in order to be able to meet the needs from a manufacturing perspective, so no, I don’t think it’s a done deal.
Brad Means: You want the Lock and Dam to stay, you want a fish passage ladder built around it, right?
Mayor Hardie Davis: Well, I think that our communities, Augusta, North Augusta, our friends in Columbia County and our friends in Aiken have all rallied around one of the alternatives that the core of engineers provided us. We didn’t come up with this alternative. It was one of the options they provided us, and that was option one dash one, and we all believe that that gives us the highest and best use to be able to continue to grow our cities, our cities to move forward with the progress that we’ve already seen from an economic growth end and a development perspective when you look at, just a few days ago, I was watching rowers row on the river that’s at full pool. If that were not the case, then that would be gone, notwithstanding the Ironman so I’m hoping that in this common period, we’ll engage our citizens tonight but by April 16, we will have provided very thorough comments to the core of engineers to say, based on the option that you’re trying to suggest to us, here are the problems with that and this is why we believe one dash one that you’ve offered us as an alternative gives us the best option to grow.
Brad Means: Real quick, we put all our forces together, you at the local level, state, federal. You think this ends the way you want it to end and the way a lot of people do?
Mayor Hardie Davis: Well, I think that there is going to be more conversation. All options, as we continue to say, are on the table. We’re going to use every lever that we have available to us. I want to give kudos to our congressmen, Congressman Rick Allen who has been a staunch, I don’t want to say, he’s been a staunch supporter of our efforts and he has carried the flag, and that’s something that we’re excited about, not so much our senators, we need more effort and support from our senior senator and our junior senator.
Brad Means: You think they’re more pro-Savannah, anti-Augusta?
Mayor Hardie Davis: Well, I wouldn’t suggest that they’re pro-Savannah, anti-Augusta. I think they’re pro-Savannah harbor expansion, and what happens in Augusta happens in Augusta. These conversations took place, quite frankly, almost 10 years ago, and now that we’ve been engaged at the point in time that the 2016 WIIN Act was adopted in December by Congress, it happened without any input from Augusta, North Augusta, and now we’re being left with, well, here’s what we’re going to do. And I just don’t think that that’s how government’s supposed to work and certainly not those who we elect to represent us in Washington should take that approach as well.
Brad Means: Let’s talk about downtown parking. I drove around for 15 minutes the other day, couldn’t find a spot. I speak for a lot of people when I say that. So come July, we’re going to have paid parking, at least the first phase of it. Will it be better then?
Mayor Hardie Davis: Well, I think one of the great challenges and certainly a misnomer at the same time is what’s happened in Augusta. Forever we’ve talked about Augusta has a parking problem. We’ve never had a parking problem. We’ve had a parking management issue. And so, our inability to effectively manage how people park, where people park in downtown is central to the approach. We took a group of business owners from downtown, city staff and other community leaders and gave them an opportunity to be a part of the parking task force. They came back with a series of recommendations from all of the studies that had been done over the last three decades in Augusta and brought forth a series of recommendations that here’s the best way for us to manage parking but at the same time create a healthy city by getting people to walk from our current parking decks. It then requires us to go back and build a host of parking decks but take advantage of the surface parking lots, take advantage of the parking decks that we already have. And I think it will help manage better the challenges that we experience, where you’ve got what I call squatters who come downtown, park, they ride out the Savannah riverside, they come back, and of course, they do shopping downtown and eat at restaurants.
Brad Means: Wait, wait, wait. They stop, they use downtown kind of as just a place to park for the day?
Mayor Hardie Davis: Sure, absolutely.
Brad Means: So the thought here is meters running, I need to get my car out of there and let somebody else have it.
Mayor Hardie Davis: Well, and that’s a true statement. And I think one of the advantages of the approach that’s been recommended is that we’ve talked about the option of what we refer to as pay by plate. A great deal of work by our task force members who came back with these recommendations, if Brad parks at the whisky bar and decides, well I’m gonna go down the street and I’m gonna shop a couple blocks over, well that goes with you. You don’t have to look for another kiosk to pay again, but because you put two hours worth of time into this spot already, when you move it goes with your parking plate. And so, that’s a very wonderful opportunity. It’s happening to Savannah, it’s happening in Macon, and it gives us an opportunity to be fluid in our approach as opposed to putting a host of kiosks in and around downtown. When you look at the transportation investment projects that we’re doing, Broad Street’s going to change.
Brad Means: Real quick, before we go to break, I want to talk about blight. Are you comfortable, and folks you know those rundown houses are in all parts of our town, are you comfortable with the city’s efforts to get rid of blight and to make those areas prettier?
Mayor Hardie Davis: Well, we’re going to be comfortable. Historically, we’ve had a series of start-stops. I applaud the efforts of previous administrations and commissions to at least attempt to tackle the issue. What we’ve been working on since the fall of last year is a joint collaboration of city staff, outside partners, whether it’s the marshal’s office, the task commissioner’s office, we’re creating a complete tool set that will allow us to go into a community of interest and address the issues of vacant, abandoned, and blighted properties and what we refer to as a window in the downtown. We’ve taken 15th Street from MLK all the way into the medical district and back over behind our Beulah Grove, where there’s some 500 plus properties of interest that require us to go in and begin to redevelop that area. And so, here in the next two months, we’re anticipating, and there’s already been a great deal of work from our staff to go out and assess and identify all of the properties and it will be a much stronger and robust approach to how we handle this issue such that once we create this template, we’ll be able to replicate this across the entire city.
Brad Means: Look forward to that. A lot more with Mayor Hardie Davis, the mayor of Augusta, Georgia when we come back on The Means Report.
Brad Means: Welcome back to The Means Report. Mayor Hardie Davis, our special guest today. We appreciate you staying with us. Mayor Davis, do people call you at home, and even if they don’t, what’s their biggest complaint? My guess is potholes.
Mayor Hardie Davis: Well, actually not, no. You don’t hear much about potholes. You hear about streetlights, storm water fees, you hear about those things. But I think much of our constituent services issues right now are focused around this issue of the New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam, what’s going to happen.
Brad Means: Really, people care?
Mayor Hardie Davis: Oh, people absolutely care, whether it’s the e-mails we get in the office or the calls that come directly to the office.
Brad Means: I’m sorry, somebody told me the other day, oh, it’s just the landowners on the river, it’s just the developers, and I thought, no I think everybody cares.
Mayor Hardie Davis: Everybody cares about this issue. When you think about its potential impact to our drinking water supply through our intake systems, I don’t think people really have an appreciation for. We’ve probably got one of the best utility services in the state of Georgia in terms of our water and service delivery. Kudos to our team, Tom Wiedmeier, his staff, they do a fantastic job, not just here but also at Fort Gordon as well, and so, you don’t want that impact. When you look at the development of the Cyber Center and also what’s happened at SRP Park, these are two signature developments in our communities of interest that are important to us, and we certainly don’t want to do anything that will impair future growth and opportunity there.
Brad Means: Name one thing you’ve brought back from a conference. People get on you for going out of town to these events. One thing you brought back and plugged in here.
Mayor Hardie Davis: Well the issue around the vacant and abandoned properties. I’ve served for the last several years as the co-chair of the vacant and abandoned properties at the U.S. Conference of Mayors. There are some best practices that other cities have used. We’ve incorporated that into what we’re doing. Also, I’ve been a champion here in the state of Georgia and abroad for smart cities. Augusta is quickly becoming a smart city. These are things that we’ve learned that different communities, whether it’s Silicon Valley where I spent a great deal of time at on trips, Oakland, California as well where there’s a great deal of work being done creating an entrepreneurial ecosystem. So we’ve not gone to conferences and just had a quote, nice time away. But we go and we learn. We not only learn those things but we bring them back and look for opportunities to implement them very quickly here in the city of Augusta. One of the things that people probably have forgotten is that Augusta is named as one of Bloomberg’s work-work cities, where we’re taking data and making better decisions. I think that’s extremely important to be able to make data-driven decisions. I tout this and I think it’s something that we all can be proud of that Augusta for the last four years, we’ve not only had a balanced budget on time, but at the end of each budget year, we’re at a surplus without raising taxes.
Brad Means: Well done, well done. Does it bother you when Commissioner Bill Fennoy kneels at meetings?
Mayor Hardie Davis: Well, I think when Bill Fennoy kneels, he did an excellent job of articulating why he does that on this past Tuesday, much to my surprise and I’m sure the surprise of our colleagues.
Brad Means: Do you wish he wouldn’t?
Mayor Hardie Davis: I wish that Bill would continue to communicate and articulate to the general public why. I think it’s time for us to have a conversation about what has caused him to take this approach. It’s certainly not the approach that I’ve taken, it’s not the approach that nine other colleagues of his has taken. But it’s certainly consistent with our Constitution and our values as Americans, his ability through free speech to have a platform to express it. I know it chafes people and rubs people the wrong way, but it’s certainly consistent with how he has worked across this community. One of the things, and I think I can say this unequivocally, Commissioner Bill Fennoy has taken great steps to work with all of Augusta, not just black Augusta, but he’s worked with all of Augusta and he’s taken strides to try to be the embodiment of what I refer to say as One Augusta, a city that works for everybody. But there are issues, there are challenges that we all face on a daily basis. And so, to the degree that he’s used the flag as a construct or a caricature of angst around these issues, I think he needs a platform to be able to better communicate. And so, what happens so often in Augusta is we immediately go to the place of denigrating, demonizing and saying, “Well, you know, he’s just bad,” without understanding. He didn’t just get to this place. He understood why he was at a place of wanting to express himself.
Brad Means: And he did articulate that.
Mayor Hardie Davis: And he did articulate that. And it’s different when people who have not been where he has been, sat where he’s sat, immediately will look at it and say, “Well, he’s just a hatemonger.” And that’s just not the case.
Brad Means: Mayor, the people who come here for the Masters, the people who are considering coming here for Cyber, see this.
Mayor Hardie Davis: Sure.
Brad Means: They see a man kneeling at meetings. They see people quibbling about stickers on a car and the car itself. Does it hurt us?
Mayor Hardie Davis: I think it brings us to a place of where people view Augusta in a light that one, I’m not proud of and I don’t think any of the commissioners are proud of. I think it brings us to a place of where it potentially hurts us when you’ve got recruitment efforts underway, billion dollar corporations who are looking for opportunities to make investments in a city like Augusta. It takes us back to what I oftentimes refer to as the Mayberry mentality. We’re not the little city by the side of the road trying to be in the big city fast lane. We’ve got to make different decisions in terms of not only who we choose to serve us as elected officials but we’ve got to also be more thoughtful in how we communicate a consistent message across all platforms and across all mediums about our city. And we’ve not done a good job of that.
Brad Means: We just have a few moments left. Why don’t more young people run for office? And I’ll help you answer that question if I may by paraphrasing an answer you gave to that at a recent Civic Club meeting. Sometimes, it’s the cons outweigh the pros.
Mayor Hardie Davis: Well, I appreciate you saying that because that didn’t get caught up in the soundbite. People just caught, oh well, he says that he wishes there were some different candidates. What I’ve consistently said in the four years prior to my fifth year in office is that I wish there were more women who ran. I wish there were younger people who ran for office. But it’s very difficult to offer yourself for public service in Augusta. When I think about communities like Charlotte, when I think about communities like Birmingham, Alabama and without question Atlanta, Georgia, they’ve become younger. They’ve become more progressive in their thinking. They’ve become more adept at trying to understand the larger issues because as elected officials in growing economies, these are very complex issues. They’re not the issues of two plus two equals four. We’re talking about Augusta being an almost billion dollar operation. And when you start making decisions that affect the lives of 202,000 plus citizens that will continue to grow through 2023 as a result of Cyber and what’s happening there, as a result of our university growing because more students are coming here, you can’t make decisions that you’ve always made because for every person Brad that says, “I want Augusta to be a big city,” I can name 10 who like it the way it is. And that concerns me as we continue to grow, so we’ve got to get younger people who aren’t afraid of being in the arena. And that’s a challenge right now because no one wants to be lambasted across the front of the television or across the front page above the fold of the paper when they’re growing families. You’ve got young people who come, two parents and a child, nobody wants to be listed as derelict and unfit. Nobody wants to do that.
Brad Means: You know what, you do take a lot being in the public eye. And we appreciate you so much. And no matter what the folks on social media say, my apologies to y’all, 75% of the vote the first time, 56% the second, so somebody likes you.
Mayor Hardie Davis: I appreciate that. We try to do the best in terms of representing the people of Augusta. I’ve always said it this way that I represent God before the people and the people before God. And I don’t want to do anything to embarrass either.
Brad Means: Well, we’re grateful to you Mayor Hardie Davis for your time and your service to our town.
Mayor Hardie Davis: Thank you.
Brad Means: Mayor Hardie Davis, Augusta, Georgia on The Means Report.